The case against hormonal contraception – January 22, 2014

I’m no big fan of hormonal contraception. That said, it has its place in the limited birth control options available to women. As I have written here before, the principle—as always—is informed choice and individual circumstance. “Informed” is the operative word and the provenance of the information is critical. Nevertheless, with the recent demonization of hormonal methods, I feel like weighing in once again and trying to seek some kind of balance.


For a related article, see also the Network book review of Sweetening the Pill

A friend posted an article on Facebook from The New American about Depo Provera and how the Gates Foundation was “killing African women.” I started to read the article on which the post was based and got as far as the statement that Depo causes STIs and cervical cancer.

The Rebecca Project For Human Rights’ Kwame Fosu quoted the reverend Dr. Randy Short,: “The used [sic] of Depo Provera contributes to and in several cases causes life threatening diseases and medical problems: cervical cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, heart attack, sterility, miscarriages, HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia, and other STIs/STDs.”

In 1986, women’s health advocates (including me and Anne Rochon Ford representing the Toronto Women’s Health Network) made deputations to the Regional Meetings on Fertility Control. We were opposing the approval of Depo as a method of birth control primarily because not all the facts were in about its potential connection to breast cancer. At that time, we also argued that it had been used off-label to the detriment of women who did not give their informed consent—women with disabilities, poor and Indigenous women.

At that time, I was already working for a public health unit, a job that included counselling people in a sexual health clinic. When Depo was approved, although we did not consider it to be a “first-line” method, we counselled and prescribed its use. Counselling included giving women the facts as we knew them.

Aside from anecdotal information, there is no scientific evidence for most of the claims made by Reverend Short about Depo. Yes, it can cause what are considered to be reversible effects on bone mineral density; and, of course, if condoms are not used, people are likely to get STIs including HPV from infected partners. But Depo is not linked to the rest of Randy Short’s list. At the clinic, there were women who used it and liked it; there were women who used it and quit. Some women who quitcontinued to experience side-effects for many months after their last injection. All had been forewarned about the side-effects and risks, including Depo’s potential long-lasting effects.

We taught women at clinic who were about to start a combined contraceptive method about its potential side-effects and risks, including a lesson in the warning signs for a blood clot or stroke.

In the past few years, oral contraceptives have taken a public beating. Cavalier prescription of third and fourth generation hormones (e.g., Orthocept, Yasmin), which carry a higher risk to women than earlier formulations, have resulted in lawsuits, disability and death. Diane-35’s off-label use is simply a travesty. It would appear from a recent CBC program (The Current Oct. 28, 2013) that bad press as well as dissatisfaction have resulted in the increased use of withdrawal and fertility awareness as alternative methods.

In the program, the participants Ann Friedman, Holly Grigg-Spall and Kate Carraway, argued that women who were generally users of “natural products” were concerned about the side-effects and risks of hormonal contraception. For that reason, they were avoiding synthetic hormones in favour of withdrawal and/or the fertility awareness methods of birth control. They suggested that the women using withdrawal were in committed relationships and might accept an unplanned pregnancy.

It turns out that it was the younger women (25 to 26) interviewed by Friedman who were more concerned about pregnancy; older couples who were on the fence about having kids felt it would not be the end of the world if there were a pregnancy.

This is the crux of the problem. Ideally, we plan according to our personal lives and current needs. However, in real life, around 40% of pregnancies are unplanned.

The program raised the issue of STIs—and rightly so. They said women using withdrawal were making the choice to have unprotected sex with partners they trusted. They added that young people’s attitudes to STIs had changed and that condoms were seen as less important than they once were  during the worst of the AIDS epidemic. But younger women (15 to 24) are statistically at higher risk for STIs like Chlamydia which, if untreated, could lead (ironically) to infertility.

The point was made that, not surprisingly, withdrawal as a birth control method continues to have some stigma attached to it. It is very effective with perfect use (96%). But the current “pull-out generation” is indeed taking a risk if they are unaware of the factors that increase the effectiveness of the method including the ability to track their own fertility. Grigg-Spall, who favours Fertility Awareness Methods (FAM), has done women a favour by shining a light on this information. She sees FAM as the feminist way of dealing with birth control.

I acknowledge that withdrawal and FAM are both underrated methods. What irks me is what comes across as cheerleading for some methods, and the vilification of others.

Hormonal contraception is far from benign. There is ongoing research into its effects on the endocrine system, its risks and even its effectiveness. For example, there is ongoing controversy over the pill’s effectiveness for women who are obese. Shockingly, BMI was recently indicated as a significant factor in the reduction of the effectiveness of emergency contraceptive pills (ECP). [See also CWHN FAQ on ECP]. And there is, of course, the horrendous loss of life for women who are not well monitored on the pill (the Patch or NuvaRing); or whose symptoms are incorrectly diagnosed when they suffer a circulatory event like a clot or a stroke.

An individual or couple should have the all of the tools at their disposal to make a deliberate, informed decision when it comes to preventing pregnancy. Health advocates with their eyes wide open are understandably cynical about who sponsors the research and how the results are then transmitted to the public. Birth control is, after all, big business. So let’s make it our business to be as informed as we possibly can.

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4 thoughts on “The case against hormonal contraception – January 22, 2014

  1. Good post. You make critical points about what we are missing in the discussion about contraception in general and about some particular methods specifically.

    Since April 2012, I’ve received over 1000 comments to two blog posts I’ve written about women’s experiences in quitting Depo-Provera, the second of which you link to in your piece. A Q&A with an endocrinologist it was intended to help women understand why they were experiencing things like heavy bleeding, painfully sore breasts, feeling like they were pregnant, weight gain, etc., upon stopping Depo, and to offer information on what they could do to support the return to normal hormonal and menstrual function.

    Recurring themes of uninformed choice, lack of body literacy, and feelings of anger and betrayal on the part of women who were, quite frankly, overwhelmed by the physical and emotional experience of quitting this method, speak to a failure on the part of health-care providers to do their due diligence around the dispensing of this method. It is effective, yes, but it has a high drop-out rate (50%) because of what women experience while taking it. And coming off it, especially after several years of use during which women may experience few side effects, can be extremely troublesome. Many women who experience adverse effects post-Depo are not at all prepared for them, nor do they understand them. Nor, does it appear, do many of their doctors.

    The other discouraging thing I learned from reader’s comments to these blog posts, was that some women who quit the method because of side effects and/or concerns seemed to have no guidance in transitioning from Depo to another method. Many had not gone back to their care-providers, many were having unprotected sex, some figuring their cycles were so messed up they couldn’t get pregnant. Most wanted nothing more than to get their cycles back to normal. Herein lies one of the major deficits of contraceptive education – how to effectively and confidently move between method groups, not just from hormone method to hormone method – their are flow charts on how to do that – but how to move from hormonal methods to non-hormonal methods, which often will include a period of transition back to normal menstrual cycle function. It is not an understatement to say that this kind of information and support is lacking in most sexual health clinic settings.

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